It's Monday night, and rapper Kid Ink is recording in a West Hollywood studio. He's a walking Rorschach test with hardly an inch of virgin skin, and the impetus for his sobriquet is obvious.
Dressed in gray - from his extra long t-shirt and designer sweats to his Nikes - he rolls a blunt but doesn't light it. Unfortunately, this studio has a no smoking policy, and they actually enforce it.
He spends the next half hour meticulously rearranging the same four bars of a song he's working on with R&B singer Sevyn Streeter. Then he sends a runner to get York Peppermint Patties, his favorite candy, and steps out to smoke.
If you haven't heard of Kid Ink, you're quickly becoming the minority. His major label debut My Own Lane, released via RCA in January, is selling well. Also, his DJ Mustard produced single "Show Me," featuring Chris Brown (below) was recently certified gold. If you listen to L.A. rap radio, you're likely to hear it at least once an hour.
Tonight he's booked this studio until midnight, planning to knock out two more features; his manager DJ Ill Will calls him a "studio rat." And though he says he averages 14 blunts per day, he's energetic and alert throughout our conversation.
Born Brian Collins in Mid-City L.A., he was raised by his mother and his grandfather - both of whom are memorialized on his chest - as his father was incarcerated for much of his adolescence. He learned piano in after school programs and began producing for local rappers using an MPC while attending Fairfax High School.
It was then that he received his first tattoos, even though he was only 16. Once he began rapping seriously, he garnered the attention of veteran mixtape DJ Ill Will. Will, who's worked with artists such as Tyga and Wiz Khalifa, normally charges to host mixtapes, but says Ink was the exception. "I was a fan," Will says.
From 2010 to 2012, they released a slew of highly downloaded independent mixtapes and developed a strongfollowing. Then, in 2012, Ink appeared on the cover of XXL's coveted freshman issue. Upon receiving the news, he and Will hit the studio, recording Ink's first proper independent album, Up & Away.
While Up & Away sold well independently - 20,000 copies in its first week - the often pop-inclined Ink desired a bigger audience and greater longevity for his singles. In 2013, shortly before his tour opening for Kendrick Lamar began, he signed with RCA.
Choosing the right label hadn't been easy. "Part of moving to RCA was feeling like they had fewer priorities in the hip-hop category," Ink explains. "It's a brand new system over there. [Hip-hop] artists are teaching the label just as much as the label is giving to the artists."
Will says Ink is the same unassuming guy he met four years ago, and it's clear he's still adjusting to the success of My Own Lane. "I can't say no to people," Ink says. "If I meet a real fan I always give them whatever they want. I give away everything - hats and clothes right off my back. I've given away exclusive Jordans off my feet."
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Kid Ink will perform at the House of Blues in L.A. on April 6th as part of his second major U.S. tour. Travel won't stop him from working on new material. "I take voice notes on the plane in front of other people," he says, chuckling. "[I try] to get the beat and the voice at the same time through my headphones over the airplane noise."
Correction: The original version of this story said Ink's album My Own Lane was approaching platinum, which is incorrect.